Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Story Behind the Story:
“Freedom’s Fight,” by Gary Phillips

(Editor’s note: This is the second installment of our new “Story Behind the Story” series. Today we bring you Los Angeles novelist and Rap Sheet contributor Gary Phillips, who explains how he came to write Freedom’s Fight, a new novel from Parker Publishing that combines history with mystery, combat with crime.)

Like a lot of boys growing up in the 1960s, I played “war” with my friends and cousins. Our pops had been in the service in Korea or World War II, so this seemed like a natural extension of pre-adolescent activities that included street baseball and roller derby. (Yep, we’d strap on steel skates and duck and weave in circles, elbowing the crap out of each other.) We were also thoroughly primed for playing soldier after seeing so many war movies on television (such as John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima or, even juicier, Rory Calhoun in a grade-B Korean War flick shot in the hills above Hollywood--one in which the squad’s dog has to drink the water they find to make sure the Commies haven’t poisoned it), faithfully watching episodes of Combat!, and reading and trading issues of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos (created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) and Sgt. Rock (created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert). We imagined ourselves as members of a squad of hard-bitten, bubble-gum-cigarette-chomping GIs stuck behind enemy lines, shooting phantom snipers in trees, and getting blasted at by a Buick-turned-tank as we fought our way back to our base with the “jerries’” secret documents. I was particularly fond of my imitation bolt-action Thompson machine gun, just like the one Sergeant Saunders used in Combat!

Only, given that we were black, plus our one Mexican-American friend, Ricky, it seemed our dads’ stories weren’t being told in those movies and TV shows. Sure, there was jazz trumpeter Gabe Jones in the Howling Commandos, and former prizefighter Jackie Johnson (an amalgam of World War II vets, and later sports legends Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson) in Rock’s Easy Company. But those guys didn’t get to be the leads; they were part of the stories, but not the story. There was also Army Air Force Sergeant Kinchloe in that wacky prisoner-of-war sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes. Occasionally, actor (later director) Ivan Dixon got to do a bit of business like imitate a Nazi officer over the phone, buffaloing the hapless Colonel Klink. However, Kinch’s race wasn’t a point of contention in the show, as he got along swell with his white buddies.

This was out of sync with stuff my dad, Dikes, would mention now and then regarding his war experiences. He was a taciturn sort, but he’d talk--sometimes apropos of nothing I had asked--about his fighting in the South Pacific. At other times, I would hear a story while we’d be at the barber shop and he was shooting the breeze with the fellas, or catch a snippet while he had a beer and played dominoes with our relatives.

I knew he’d seen action at Guadalcanal. After finding that getting shot was an unpleasant experience, he’d managed to get transferred to the motor pool, as he was the only one who could adjust the air-fuel mixture correctly on the carburetor of a swank LaSalle. This car belonged to a general who’d shipped the vehicle over to the humid islands, so he could have himself driven around in it and conduct the war from the rear. I knew, too, that my pops had received basic training at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. The base, like all U.S. military bases back then, whether in the north or the south, operated in the spirit of Jim Crow--with “separate but equal” accommodations for black soldiers and white ones. He would also talk about how his white Southern officers weren’t shy about expressing their opinion of black GIs, to the black GIs. And that he damn near got court-martialed twice--once for fraternizing with a WAC, a female officer, and another time for not wearing his Army Technical Sergeant stripes. Despite his rather lackadaisical attitude toward the war effort, Pops was offered the chance to be a Master Sergeant, but he was more than happy to cashier out of the service at war’s end.

My uncle, Dikes’ older brother Norman, had been among the all-black squads doing the D-Day mop up in France, but none of them were depicted in The Longest Day or, later, Band of Brothers. I do recall, though, a telling scene in the 1958 film Naked and the Dead, based on Norman Mailer’s book, when some white soldiers come into this bar in the French countryside (or it could have been a mess hall), and there are some black soldiers at a table. There’s a stunned silence, and then the whites attack the black soldiers. Uncle Norman would be among the black ex-pats who stayed in Paris after the war. Unk knew celebs such as Richard Wright, Joe Louis, and jazz pianist Memphis Slim. Pops and I would spend our summers with his brother and his family (my mother, Leonelle, had died of a degenerative disease when I was 14, after years of ’round-the-clock care), he working in Uncle Norman’s garage, while I tried to figure out what Aunt Ginette from Guadalupe was telling me to do in her heavily accented English.

The author’s father, Dikes (left), and Dikes’ older brother Norman at Omaha Beach, on the north coast of France, in the 1950s

All of this raw material had been rolling around in my head for years before I ever thought to include it in a novel. It leaked out sometimes, though, in small ways; I wrote several novels and short stories about Los Angeles private eye Ivan Monk, and made his deceased father, Josiah Monk, a sergeant in the Korean War. But it took time for me to approach the Big One.

I’d like to be able to cite a previous work of fiction that, along with everything I’ve just mentioned, inspired me to write Freedom’s Fight, my new World War II novel that portrays the struggles of African Americans on the homefront and in the battles overseas. But it was mostly non-fiction books I’d accumulated over the years that fueled my desire to write this story: Fighting Racism in World War II, by C.L.R. James and others; the self-published Lonely Eagles: The Story of America’s Black Air Force in World War II, by Robert A. Rose; The Invisible Soldier: The Experience of the Black Soldier, World War II, edited by Mary Penick Motley; and the emotionally impressive Bloods, by Wallace Terry, about black soldiers in the Vietnam War. Well, those books together with Carter’s Army, a 1970 ABC-TV Movie of the Week, written by Aaron Spelling (yes, Charlie’s Angels’ Aaron Spelling) and David Kidd, and starring, among others, Stephen Boyd, Robert Hooks, Richard Pryor, and Billy Dee Williams.

Freedom’s Fight interweaves real-life characters and events with fictional figures and situations. Civil-rights pioneer A. Philip Randolph, Charlotta Bass (who ran the black newspaper The Eagle here in Los Angeles), and others interact with my main players. Among the latter is Madison Clay, a scholar and soldier facing court-martial, who’s propelled into an espionage mission in North Africa. There’s also Alma Yates, a young career woman and reporter for the leading black newspaper of the day, The Pittsburgh Courier. The Courier was part of what was termed the Double V Campaign--victory at home and victory abroad.

In my story, Yates is on assignment, traveling across the United States and reporting on the war effort among African Americans. At the time, there were some civil-rights organizations saying that black people shouldn’t be fighting and dying for freedom across the oceans, when they still didn’t enjoy freedom at home. Others, however, argued that blacks had to show that they were brave, loyal Americans and support domestic campaigns to help win World War II. Yates’ reporting inadvertently uncovers a military mystery. Secrets, too, haunt a once-popular crooner, Gil Giabretto, who is now a GI facing off against death on the European front lines.

I need to tell you, too, that Freedom’s Fight is not only dedicated to my dad and his brothers, Norman and Sammy (who was stationed in India), but also to Lieutenant Oscar D. Hutton Jr., my mother’s brother, who was a Tuskegee Airman and was killed in action over Memmingen, Germany, on July 18, 1944. I’m also thrilled to have a blurb of this book from Charles Fuller, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his stage drama, A Soldier’s Play, as well as one from Sgt. Rock artist Joe Kubert.

I might well have imagined doing a book like Freedom’s Fight, but whatever grounding it has in reality now that I’ve written it, is due to men like my dad and his brothers, and the uncle I never knew.


john Shannon said...

Fantastic to see this is out. Congratualations! I'm dying to read it.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Gary. It's written as fiction, of course. But with so much truth in the pages, is it really? Excellent work as usual.

Mantronikk said...

Wasn't Lt. Oscar Hutton officialy listed as MIA? I need to know for a novel I intend to write.